Woody and Williams

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, December 10, 2013 No Comment(s)

Woody Woodbury's Korean war aircraft
It was the fall of 1970, and we were staying at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel and looking for ways to enliven the magazine we had just bought. It was called Pictorial Life at the time. Some people still call it Pictorial. There was a very funny guy named Blackie Nelson working the Rum House at the hotel. After listening to him for about 60 straight nights, we got the bright idea that it might be fun to do a story on local entertainers, by enlivening what was a stodgy magazine at the time. It turned out there was a group called The Punchinellos working the beach, and somebody mentioned that we should check out Woody Woodbury, who was working next door to the Galt at the Beach Club. Woody was very funny. The story worked.

Forward 43 years. By now our magazine was long established as Gold Coast and Woody Woodbury was featured last month at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society's Thanksgiving Dinner. He donated a piano to the society and sat down and played and joked to mark the occasion. He was as funny as ever. Woody was born in 1924. Do the math. It was fitting that a historic entertainer should work the room at the historic New River Inn - built in 1905. By then, Henry Flagler's FEC Railway had reached Fort Lauderdale.

Woody has been working regularly all those years and has made our pages a number of times, most memorably in 1999 when we did a piece called “Memories of War.” Among the adventures described was Woody’s time as a Marine Corps pilot in Korea. He actually joined up during the late stages of World War II but did not get overseas. But five years later came Korea. Woody was among hundreds of World War II vets who joined the reserve and were called to active duty, and this time he saw more action than he ever needed – about 106 missions (he’s not exactly sure) flying land-based Grumman F9F Panther jets on mostly low-level ground attack missions. Think of William Holden in "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."

The character Holden played resembled the history of one of Woodbury’s flying mates in Korea, baseball legend Ted Williams. Like Harry Brubaker (Holden’s character) Williams had an important career interrupted, and resented it, but did his duty nonetheless.

“I met Ted at El Toro during World War II, but I didn’t run with him as I did in Korea,” Woodbury said today. “We wound up going duck hunting in Korea. I was the gun bearer and drove the jeep."

Woodbury also drove a F9F Panther on the mission when Williams’ plane was hit and he brought it home, on fire, for a harrowing wheels up landing. Woodbury had parked his plane off the runway and was nearby when Williams finally skidded to a halt and was out of the smoking ship faster than he swung a bat.

The Williams conversation at dinner last month prompted Woodbury to drop off a copy of Ted Williams At War written a few years ago by Bill Nowlin. If it were Woodbury’s favorite reading at the time, no wonder. He’s mentioned about 6,000 times (actually only on 16 pages) and not without reason. His talent made him well known on a base that included, besides Ted Williams, John Glenn, New York Yankees player Jerry Coleman,  LLoyd Merriman of Cincinnati Reds and other future Marine Corps notables.

“I played the piano all the time,” he recalls, “and they would ask me to do shows at the O Club. At night there’s nothing to do. We did parodies on Marine songs, like ‘I wanted wings until I got wings, and I don’t want wings anymore.’"

His reputation spread to the Air Force when it and the Marines shared a base. Air Force brass asked him do shows.

“I never got paid for those shows, but one day an Air Force colonel asked me if he could do anything for me. I said, 'you sure can. Let me fly an F-86 Sabre Jet.' So they checked me out in a Sabre Jet.”

It was an interesting, if somewhat perilous way to advance a great career.

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